This fertility myth seems to have Mycenaean (pre-Homeric) origins, but the earliest and in many ways the best version that survives is from the late seventh century b.c.e. in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, or Ceres. Demeter (either “earth mother” or “grain mother”) and her daughter Persephone (corrupted by the Romans into Proserpina) were originally two aspects of one mythic personality: The mother was associated with the harvest, the daughter with the sprouting grain. The Greeks, fearfully avoiding mention of the daughter’s name, called her simply Kore, that is, “grain” maiden. This practice of avoiding the actual name was usual with the powerful and mysterious chthonian (underworld) deities whom the Greeks wished not to risk offending.
The literary history of the myth is extensive, including two appearances in Ovid—Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) and Fasti (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1859)—but there are only minor variations, such as where the rape occurred, who Triptolemus was, how many pomegranate seeds Proserpine ate, and how much of the year she remains with Hades. The above synopsis, which is a conflation of Ovid’s accounts, differs from the Homeric hymn in the Triptolemus episode. In the hymn, Ceres’ hosts, Celeus and Metanira, are not peasants but the rulers of Eleusis, near Athens. In her old age, Metanira gives birth to a child, Demophon, whom she gives to Ceres, disguised as Doso, to suckle. Triptolemus was one of Eleusis’s youthful nobility and was among the first to participate in Ceres’ mysteries, or secret rites, in the temple built by Celeus. The hymn also has Proserpine spend one-third of the year with her husband below the earth; this reflects a tripartite seasonal year of spring, summer, winter. Despite mention in the hymn that Proserpine emerges to the upperworld in the spring, reputable scholars argue that her four months’ absence is associated with the summer-long storage of harvested grain in June. (The grain was put in jars in the cool earth till planting...
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